|Another challenge awaits Lightning against Maple Leafs|
TAMPA, Fla. -- On Saturday, the Tampa Bay Lightning were reminded that a short-handed team is still nothing to be taken lightly when they were soundly defeated 3-0 by the injury-depleted Boston Bruins.
They face much the same challenge on Tuesday when the Toronto Maple Leafs come to town, trying to build momentum for the playoffs without several key players.
Toronto (43-22-7) is in third place in the Atlantic, all but assured of a playoff spot with 12 games to play. But the Maple Leafs are still without star Auston Matthews, nearly back after a month out with a shoulder injury.
They'll play Tuesday without center Leo Komarov and defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, and potentially goalie Frederik Andersen as well.
The Maple Leafs have won four straight, scoring a combined 20 goals, but their next two are on the road against the top two teams in the NHL, with a game following Thursday at Nashville.
"A good test for us," Toronto coach Mike Babcock said Monday. "Obviously, we're going to have to get better. We know that. The urgency in our play has to be better if we're going to have success."
Tampa Bay (49-19-4) still leads the Atlantic, though Boston lurks four points back with two games in hand, and Nashville now has the lead for the overall points in the NHL. The Lightning bounced back from a two-game losing streak with a 3-1 win Sunday over the Edmonton Oilers.
That win saw a big step forward on special teams -- the Lightning went 5 of 5 in killing off Oilers power plays after giving up power-play goals in 11 of the previous 12 games. The penalty kill now ranks 26th in the league, a weakness big enough to help offset the NHL's No. 2 power play.
Even the power play had struggled, going 4 of 24 in nine games before getting a key power play goal from Nikita Kucherov as the go-ahead goal Sunday.
Kucherov continues to pace the league with 93 points, on 36 goals and 57 assists, and the league's top-scoring offense also has Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point with 27 goals each.
"Tonight, we won the special-teams battle, and we got a much-deserved win," said Stamkos, noting that the penalty-kill issues haven't been for a lack of effort but had remained a persistent struggle.
If Tampa Bay was to stumble and be overtaken by Boston -- the teams play two more times in the final 10 games -- it could fall into an opening-round playoff against Toronto.
The two teams have played close games this season -- Tampa Bay won 2-0 in January, Toronto won 4-3 in February, and the Lightning edged the Maple Leafs 4-3 in shootout later in February.
Babcock said it's important not to look ahead in a challenging week, and just play the game directly in front of them.
"Some nights, the matchups are easier than others," Babcock said. "I can guarantee the next couple of nights they won't easy."